As part of our faculty spotlight series, The AmeriCenter recently caught up with Kenneth Mullinax Jr., Director of Media Relations and Public Information for Alabama State University and a local historian based in Montgomery, Alabama. Prior to his role at Alabama State University, Mr. Mullinax served in Washington, D.C. in various roles, including as the media director for former U.S. Rep. Earl Hilliard (Ala. 7th), the first black congressman from Alabama since Reconstruction and as an aide for Governor George Wallace from 1983-1987. Ken also worked as a legislative assistant for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and as a political and foreign affairs consultant with the U.S. State Department’s Western European Affairs Office. Upon returning to Alabama, Mullinax spent a few years as spokesman for the Birmingham mayor and the president of the Birmingham City Council, then as a reporter in Montgomery. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is day-to-day role at Alabama State University look like and why did you decide to work for ASU after a career in political communications?
I am the spokesperson and the Director of Media and Public relations for Alabama State University. ASU is the oldest state-sponsored HBCU in America, founded in 1867 by nine former slaves. My work at the University is a natural progression of my career in advocating for more positive interracial relationships and governmental interaction and allows me to work where the civil rights movement was born, which is at ASU mere hours after Rosa Park’s arrest. Its an honor and privilege to work at an HBCU and to help it in its day-to-day quest to educate students and spread the good word about ASU with the general public.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background growing up in segregated Alabama and how that experience as a child influenced your work in support of Civil Rights?
I became aware of the civil rights movement at a young age. Growing up in Anniston Alabama, in the 1960s, I saw first-hand the extreme propaganda and racial hatred, segregation and even experienced racial violence against me at the age of five-years-old, which is highlighted in a documentary by the U. S. Library of Congress & The History Channel that tells my story among those of others titled “Voices of Civil Rights.” Witnessing this racial hatred and hurt first-hand served as a catalyst for me in my life to do everything I could to impart love, kindness and generosity to all people and to be an advocate for the rights of freedom and equality for everyone; regardless of race.
Q: Over the years, you have worked to bring recognition to a number of historical landmarks in Alabama commemorating important events in the Civil Rights Movement. How did you get involved in the historical perseveration of these landmarks?
My work in this area began in 1990 with the African-American Greenwood Cemetery in Birmingham, which is the final resting-place of three of the four little girls murdered in the 1963 16th Street Baptist church bombings, At this time, it was in disarray and when I learned that bombing victim Addie Mae Collins only had a wooden stake that marked her grave, I purchased her a headstone. I also worked with the Alabama Historical Commission and had the cemetery designated as a state historic site and we all worked to clean it up.
Since then, I have sponsored numerous state historic markers across Alabama, including for the 1961 Civil Rights Freedom Riders in Birmingham, and in Montgomery, commemorating the 1955 Birth of Montgomery Bus Boycott that occurred at ASU; the 1961 Freedom Riders at Montgomery’s Greyhound Bus Station and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March reaching the Alabama Capitol building.
Q: What are some of the most important takeaways for students who have never visited Alabama to study the Civil Rights movement?
Students would want to visit Alabama because it’s where the fight for civil rights, equality and justice all began – after all, America’s modern civil rights movement was born in Montgomery on Dec. 5, 1955 with the arrest of Rosa Parks. So if you want to understand the significance of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the heroism of the 1961 Freedom Riders led by John Lewis; the boldness of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th St. Baptist Church, and where a majority of all of America’s most famous civil rights events took place; then students of history must visit these myriad historical sites and see where the history took place.
Q: How can students make an impact in their communities on diversity and equity issues such as voting rights and economic inclusion?
I would challenge students to do as Congressman John Lewis said and make “good trouble” by peacefully protesting against events and things that are not morally right or Constitutionally sound. Be “change agents” for justice; be a voice in promoting liberty, voting rights and equality for all. It’s certainly important to understand history and I would encourage students to come to Alabama to see these sites first-hand where citizens first started America’s civil rights movement. Then, students will be empowered to translate these experiences and travails of those that came before them to determine how to be an advocate for equal justice in their own communities. Remember, “What is past is prologue.”